L/A Arts’ office on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. The nonprofit is slated to move and layoff employees to save money.
LEWISTON — Two months after L/A Arts’ director said the nonprofit had “made huge strides” financially, its board has decided to lay off its employees.
Board Chairman Jim Parakilas said Wednesday that the area’s premier arts organization hasn’t been able to bring in enough money to support itself.
“It’s been an accumulation of things,” he said.
L/A Arts has a full-time consulting director and a part-time programs manager. It usually has a full-time business manager as well, but that position is vacant and the organization has been using a part-time bookkeeper to fill in the gaps.
The director and programs manager will leave in the coming months. The business manager position will not be filled. It is unclear what will happen with the bookkeeper.
“I don’t know whether we’re going to keep that person or not,” Parakilas said. “We’ve told her we want her to work through December.”
In place of full-time employees, the 44-year-old organization will use volunteers, board members and independent contractors to keep its programs running.
“We would like people to contact us and join in a process of rethinking how we can make a go of this,” Parakilas said.
The organization also plans to move out of its office space on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. The board has not yet decided where L/A Arts will be run.
L/A Arts began in 1973 as a Lewiston Public Library program to bring performers to the area. The Auburn Public Library soon became a partner.
The program was renamed in 1988, becoming the L/A Arts known today. The independent nonprofit no longer concentrates on public performances but focuses instead on arts in education, community arts events and arts agency initiatives, like the development of a Lewiston-Auburn cultural plan.
L/A Arts has struggled financially in recent years. Tax forms filed between 2013 and 2015, the latest years available, show the organization often ran a deficit.
In 2014-15, it spent almost $13,000 on rent. It also spent more than $120,000 on four employees, including pay, benefits and payroll taxes. Of that, $53,270 went to the salary for then-director Josh Vink.
L/A Arts also suffered a blow late last year when the Maine Arts Commission decided not to award it a $75,000 grant — despite the fact L/A Arts was the only organization in Maine eligible to apply.
That money would have been used to help L/A Arts move forward with its cultural plan, but arts commission committee members questioned exactly how the grant money would be spent, saying L/A Arts’ budget was not clear and that “certain numbers don’t add up.” They also said L/A Arts’ efforts were “scattered” and the group’s initiative lacked priority and focus.
Two months ago, Rosen told the Sun Journal that L/A Arts had been able to improve its finances despite the loss of that funding, thanks to other grants, increases in individual donations and business support and changes to the way it operates.
She said the organization was slated to end the fiscal year with a slight surplus, an improvement from the year before when it faced a $45,000 deficit.
Parakilas said Wednesday that Rosen was not wrong and that the organization had indeed climbed out of a financial hole. But, he said, it wasn’t enough.
“We basically couldn’t sustain going forward at the level of expense that we have had,” he said.
Parakilas said L/A Arts’ situation is not unique among nonprofits.
“It’s hard to regulate the flow,” he said. “You don’t have enough money. You often don’t have it when you need it and you’re constantly scrambling, asking people for help.”
L/A Arts has applied for and received grants, but the process is often slow and the money must be used for the specific program it’s earmarked for, not to run the organization.
“It doesn’t keep the lights on or pay the payroll,” Parakilas said.
For that, L/A Arts relies on donations from businesses and individuals.
The board of directors has been discussing layoffs during a series of meetings. Members made it official Tuesday.
Parakilas said the decision was difficult but that employees come at “considerable expense.”
He said L/A Arts will continue with its popular monthly art walk, which expanded this year to run through December and includes both Lewiston and Auburn. It will also maintain its Arts in Education program and A Place For Makers, which, in connection with Museum L-A, helps artisans find opportunities to set up shop in Lewiston-Auburn.
He said L/A Arts will not reapply for the $75,000 Maine Arts Commission grant to move forward with its cultural plan for the area. Without employees, it would be too hard for the organization to go through the application process.
“We just can’t manage that,” he said.
L/A Arts is now looking for additional board members and volunteers to help it keep going.
Parakilas remains hopeful.
“It’s going to be a lot of work for the board and we have to convince the community that we’re alive and kicking and doing great things,” he said. “But we’re very enthusiastic about that.”